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'We're not going to go back on that': Economist talks about what a COVID-19 economy in the future may hold

Forecasting the short-term economic outlook for Georgia and the rest of the nation is a little trickier than taking a longer look into the future, according to a top state economist.

Tom Cunningham, senior vice president and chief economist for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, said the country is not in the midst of a typical recession.

“In a usual recession, there are some segments of the economy that have done something they probably shouldn’t have — or there have been some policy mistakes that shouldn’t have been made,” Cunningham told members of the Rome and Seven Hills Rotary clubs Thursday.

When that happens, people get concerned about their future prospects. They cut back on their consumption “and we have to figure out how to get people back into restaurants or offices or factories,” he explained.

The current situation is exactly the opposite of that.

In this case, the economy was thriving, Cunningham said. But when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, people had to be deliberately kept out of places of business.

Cunningham likened the federal CARES Act stimulus to a bridge loan for individuals and businesses. But as the situation lingers, it’s unclear what a second round of government stimulus efforts should look like.

“You can’t design a bridge loan package when you don’t know where the bridge ends,” he said.

Still, the diversity of the North Georgia economy has proven to be a huge benefit, according to Cunningham.

“We grew at a fairly rapid pace over the last few decades and we did so by bringing in people and firms from around the nation and around the world,” Cunningham said.

He said the Georgia unemployment rate did not spike as high as the national rate and, since March and April, it has been receding steadily. The state’s economy looks much better to Cunningham than two of its primary competitors.

“Neither Texas nor North Carolina have the diversity that Georgia has,” he said.

Over the past month, that variety of job sectors has put Georgia among the top five states in terms of the week to week decline in unemployment compensation.

“It looks like we are seeing much more stability in the labor market,” Cunningham said.

What’s happened, the economist said, is that the pandemic and resultant economic slowdown forced some changes that experts knew were going to happen anyway.

The most obvious is the way people work.

The infrastructure that makes it possible for people to work remotely was going to evolve in the long-term, he said, but the evolution was ramped up by COVID-19.

“We’re not going to go back on that,” Cunningham said.

The idea that everybody will return to their offices is not a realistic expectation, he said, and that’s going to affect the commercial real estate market at the very least.

The pandemic also “wildly accelerated” some of the existing difficulties for retailers across the country, such as the transition to online sales.

During a question and answer period, Redmond Regional Medical Center CEO John Quinlivan asked about a future stimulus package. Congress is still debating that, but Cunningham said the surge in spending created by the $600 a week add-on to unemployment benefits was critical at the time to keeping the economy afloat.

Former Georgia Northwestern Technical College President Pete McDonald asked about the concern that more than half of the nation’s small businesses could be shuttered as a result of COVID-19.

“The longer period of time that goes, the greater the stresses are,” Cunningham said. “We saw a couple of big retailers go under and that’s because the cumulative stresses pile up over time. Small businesses are more susceptible to that. This is a big problem.”

Another problem is the cutback on spending. Cunningham said people who had money increased their savings up to about 25% during the second quarter of the year — and personal debt fell for the first time since 2014.

“That has the makings of a very bad recession,” he said.

At the end of the day, however, Cunningham said the building blocks of the U.S. economy remain the same.

“Fundamentals of innovation and productivity haven’t changed at all,” he said. “Long term growth is not going to be diminished at all, but in the short run there is an enormous amount of uncertainty and disruption.”

Two men accused of the murder of Truvenia Campbell, Vanita Richardson denied bond

Two of the three men charged with the murder of two Floyd County women were denied bond after a hearing Thursday.

Attorneys for Devin Lashawn Watts and Christopher Leedarius Pullen argued that the judge should consider the uncertainty of when the men could go to trial and grant them bond.

A judicial emergency order is in effect because of the coronavirus pandemic. The statewide order allows only some specific court functions to occur and is set to expire next week. However, even if the order isn’t extended due to the rising number of infections across the state, the question of case backlogs would remain.

Both men attended the hearing Thursday via videoconference from the Floyd County Jail.

A third man, Desmond Lavonta Brown, is also charged with the murders of Vanita Nicole Richardson and Truvenia Clarece Campbell but was not in court on Thursday. The two women’s bodies were found off the bypass on May 13.

Prosecutors argued the crimes themselves warrant the men being held in jail until trial.

“The defendant is charged with the horrific murder of two females from this community,” Rome Circuit Assistant District Attorney Emily Johnson said.

In addition, both men have previous convictions for aggravated assault and were both on bond for other recently committed crimes, she said.

Summerville attorney Steven Miller brought Watts’ mother to testify that he would stay out of trouble if released on bond and would live at her apartment off Chateau Drive. She was accompanied by his sisters and told the court that Watts has four children.

“Twenty-two, 17, 7 and 5 — and a grandbaby on the way,” she said.

“Grandbaby?” Watts exclaimed over the videoconference line, looking up tearfully. “Oh my god.”

Johnson said Watts has a violent past, including a conviction for shooting up a home in 2003 as a retaliatory measure. He was also out on bond for a case in which he is accused of attacking a woman with children present in the home.

Prosecutors said Pullen had been transient and banned from several businesses on or near Martha Berry Highway for acting violently or erratically.

“He’s a frequenter of the motels there on Martha Berry,” Johnson told the court, adding that, five days after the killings occurred, Pullen was the prime suspect in an incident she characterized as similar to a “home invasion” in that area.

“The two victims’ families do not want them out,” Johnson told Superior Court Judge Jack Niedrach.

In an earlier hearing, an 18-year-old Aragon man arrested July 17 in relation to the investigation was granted a $5,000 bond on charges of theft by receiving stolen property.

Alec Heath Brogdon is not allowed access to firearms, must wear an ankle monitor and may only leave his home for work. He is charged with selling a stolen Glock .380 caliber pistol to Watts.

The pistol had been stolen in Pickens County days before the sale and was a Georgia State Patrol back-up weapon, Johnson said.

Brogdon is not charged with participating in the homicides and sold the pistol to Watts after the killings had occurred, his attorney Chris Twyman told the court.

“There’s no dispute whatsoever that Mr. Brogdon is not involved in any way with the double homicide,” Twyman said.

Brogdon has a hold from Polk County on a charge of making false statements to a GBI investigator. Johnson said he first told the investigator he hadn’t sold any guns to Desmond Brown but later said he had.

Isaac Lansdell, a student at Glenwood Primary School

Local option sales tax collections remain unaffected by pandemic

Floyd County’s special purpose local option sales tax collection has increased from last year’s collection, despite the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the economy.

County Manager Jamie McCord said the SPLOST collection, as well as the local option sales tax collection, for July is 8% higher than the 2019 collection.

He said there isn’t an exact reason why, but McCord partially attributed the increase to the marketplace facilitator tax that was passed by the Georgia General Assembly in February. The legislation imposes state sales tax on online purchases from third parties that sell through “facilitators” like Amazon, eBay and Google.

“I think that’s had an impact and has tried to lessen some of the COVID issues,” he said.

McCord went on to say that each month’s sales tax revenue has been ahead of their initial projections so far this year, with the exception of June and January.

During the spring and early summer, construction crews finished up the first phase of the State Mutual Stadium upgrades funded through a $2 million earmark in the 2017 SPLOST. This included the installation of new LED lighting and the expansion and renovation of the team store and fan assist area. Due to the cancellation of the Rome Braves season, they were able to finish ahead of schedule, McCord said.

The next phase will be the terrace renovation, but McCord said the county and the Braves are looking at adjusting the plan for the project. The original plan was to do a complete enclosure of the area with additional group seating.

“We’re really moving forward with the terrace after some additional talks with the Braves. We hope to get it back underway here in the next month or so,” McCord said.

About a mile down the road at the jail, construction crews have been hard at work on the SPLOST-funded medical wing expansion and upgrades. Over a third of the construction has been completed and they hope to have it finished by the end of November.

Planning Commission approves convenience store plans for Shorter Avenue at Burnett Ferry Road

The Rome-Floyd Planning Commission is recommending approval of a new convenience store on Shorter Avenue at Burnett Ferry Road.

Owner and applicant JoAnne Dulaney wishes to rezone one of the parcels from Heavy Commercial to Community Commercial. Her application also requests to combine the parcel with the adjacent parcels that are already zoned for community commercial development.

Currently, the tire shop on the property has a chain link fence behind it that serves as a buffer between the site and the single-family homes on Whitehead Street. If Dulaney’s application is approved by the Rome City Commission, she would have to install a 15-foot landscape buffer to separate it from the nearby residences.

Some of the residents on the street spoke in opposition of the store, saying they worry about the amount of traffic at the intersection.

“Whitehead Street makes about a 45-degree angle there and is very close with the intersection of Burnett Ferry and Shorter Avenue,” Planning Director Artagus Newell said.

Newell said one of the neighbors described how she and others have to take a long way around to get to either of the main roads. Construction of the store, she told him, could create more traffic and be an inconvenience to the Whitehead Street residents.

The same neighbor also voiced concerns about crime in the area, saying many convenience stores on Shorter have experienced robberies in the past.

The City Commission will make the final decision following a public hearing at its Aug. 24 session.

Planning Commission members also recommended approval of a residential rezoning request for a 15-acre parcel currently zoned community commercial.

Applicant Barry Taraczkozy wishes to rezone the lot off Alabama Highway between Barker Road and Beech Creek as suburban residential, to create a buffer between his neighboring property and any future land uses.

No one spoke in opposition of the application and the recommendation will go to the Floyd County Commission at its Aug. 25 meeting.

Anyone interested in speaking at the commission meetings may contact Associate Planner Brice Wood by calling 706-236-5022 or by emailing bwood@romega.us.